This past Monday, as if the rampant destruction in Ukraine weren’t unbearable enough, a story came across the news sites that underscored the inhumanity of war and that brought a stark reminder of a time of inhumanity that has never even scabbed over, much less healed. Borys Romanchenko, age 96, was killed in a bombing of Kharkiv. He had survived imprisonment in four concentration camps during the Holocaust — Buchenwald, Peenemunde, Dora, Bergen-Belsen — as a Soviet prisoner of war.
Consider the terrible effectiveness of the Holocaust in decimating the Jewish citizens of Europe. By the time it was over, two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish citizens had been murdered. Over three million Jewish people lived in Poland in 1939, but by 1945 not even 400,000 remained alive. According to United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Soviet POWs were the second most numerous victims of Nazi policies, targeted for death as “Slavic subhumans.”
Powerful religious leaders sidelined themselves while bodies filled mass graves and ovens. The Catholic Church teaches that “human life is sacred” and refers to the “dignity of the human person,” yet the Catholic Church failed to condemn Hitler and Nazi atrocities. Pope Pius XII knew of the mass murders of Jewish citizens. As reported in Smithsonian Magazine, in 1942 the pope was made aware of eyewitness reports of the “butchery” of Jews in Warsaw and in the Lviv Ghetto in Ukraine. “Soon after, the United States’ envoy to the Vatican asked if it could corroborate accounts of mass killings in Warsaw and Lviv,” yet the pope declined to do so.
In contrast, Pope Francis has decried the Holocaust, admitting that the great powers, presumably including his predecessor, “washed their hands and looked the other way.” He has also acknowledged that the Jewish people were targeted for extermination “simply by virtue of who they were.”
Pope Francis has also condemned the targeting of civilians in the current war in Ukraine. Last Sunday, Pope Francis beseeched, “Stop this massacre!” Yet he has not criticized the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Patriarch Kirill. Kirill has publicly supported Russia’s war against Ukraine — and by extension its killing of civilians — and has described this war in religious terms, claiming that it has “metaphysical significance.”
To be clear, the “metaphysical significance” is related to the 2019 recognition of the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which had for centuries been under leadership of the Patriarch of Moscow. Ukrainian identity, particularly in the west of Ukraine, included independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Pew Research noted that by 2015, only 17 percent of Ukrainians saw Patriarch Kirill as their spiritual leader. Ukrainians looked instead to Patriarch Filaret of Kyiv or Metropolitan Onufriy for spiritual leadership. In December of 2018, the eve of transition, the New York Times reported concerns that attempted autonomy for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church “may become a pretext for open military invasion by the Russian Federation’s armed forces….” Kirill’s support for this war suggests that it is more than pretext.
Rarely is a threat to power met with indifference, and the drive for power is at the heart of Kirill’s antagonistic words. More than one news outlet has noticed that Patriarch Kirill is framing this as a holy war. The Washington Post explained that Orthodox scholars see Kirill’s religious vision, a “transnational Russian sphere … which includes Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan…with Kirill as its religious leader,” as a heresy. In the name of heresy and the quest for authority, bombs rain down on Ukrainian people.
This is not the first time Ukrainians have been punished for asserting themselves. The Holocaust came on the heels of the Holodomor, the intentional starvation of almost four million Ukrainians under Stalin. During 1933, its height, about 28,000 Ukrainians starved to death each day. Starvation was not from crop failure: Ukraine’s grain was exported. Rather, Ukrainians were forbidden from consuming it to break Ukrainian resistance to Soviet collectivization policies. Today, 14 countries, including the Vatican, recognize the Holodomor as genocide.
Several years ago, Pope Francis commemorated the horror of the Holodomor and urged Catholics to “pray for Ukraine and for its long-sought-after peace.” But to pray for peace means to call out those agitating for war, those with a holy vision of their own power, even fellow religious leaders.
Some will object to my putting the Holocaust side by side here with the Holodomor and the current war in Ukraine. Of course, there are significant differences. There is also a sickening common denominator: a furious drive to kill civilians in pursuit of a perverse and unholy vision. Is Borys Romanchenko not an example of that? There is a commonality as well among the corpses and survivors: what Buddhism calls the sacred desire to exist.